President Stephen C. Ainlay's charge to graduates

Publication Date

What a glorious day!

I want to thank our honorary degree recipients – Dr. Wenig and Dr. Agosin for being with us today. Each of you in your own way have reminded us of the importance of being authors and makers of the world. We are proud to count you as members of our Union community.

I’d also ask you to please join me in thanking once again our student speaker, Nathan Greenberg. Your talk was a compelling reminder of what is so special about you and about Union College.

I would call your attention to the list of prize recipients, printed in the back pages of the Commencement Program. They received their awards at Prize Day but I would ask you to join me in recognizing them today with your applause.

Would all of you join me in thanking the members of the Union faculty who have shared their love of learning with you these past four years?

I’d especially like to thank those faculty who are retiring, some of whom join me on the platform today: Julius Barbanel; Linda Cool; Walter Hatke; Pilar Moyano; Jay Newman; Susan Niefield; Rudy Nydegger; and Karl Zimmermann. Please join me in recognizing them with your applause.

We also need to thank Professor William Finlay, our Marshall, the members of the Commencement Committee as well as the entire staff of Union College for making this day so special. As they say, “it takes many hands,” and many hands have readied our campus, made sure we all got to the right place at the right time, and prepared for this day. Please join me in thanking all of them with your applause.

Members of the Class of 2015, you have many to thank for helping you reach this day. In particular, you owe a debt of gratitude to family and friends. You know better than I do that they’ve been there to encourage you and they’ve supported you with their love and in so many other ways. All of us are thankful for their trust. I would invite you all to stand, turn to face your family and friends who are in attendance today, and join me in thanking them with your applause.

I invite all graduates, friends, family members, faculty, staff, and administrators – to join the divisional receptions immediately following this ceremony.

Before we take our leave, however, I’d ask you to bear with me for just a few more minutes and allow me to say a few words to the members of the Class of 2015.

“A prize as fair as the gods may wear is a dip from our Alma Mater.” So read the lyrics of Ode to Old Union. Well, you now have the “dip” from your Alma Mater! Congratulations! I know it has taken hard work, perseverance, and commitment and I hope you feel a certain sense of satisfaction. I also know, from talking with many of you, that it seems nearly impossible that your days as a student at Union are over.

You may not remember it but when I spoke to you as a class for the first time in Memorial Chapel in the fall of 2011, I asked you to look at the student sitting to your left and then look to the student sitting to your right. I told you that I hoped everyone would still be here on this day and that you’d care for each other for the next four years along the way to Commencement. Well, you have looked out for each other, you’ve supported each other. You’ve made lasting friendships. And, you are here.

I’d wager that you while you sat there in Memorial Chapel on September 4, 2011, you didn’t imagine all the change you’d witness during your four years here. You likely didn’t foresee the building of the Henle Dance Pavilion and the Wicker Wellness Center. You likely didn’t anticipate the renovation of Lamont House and Karp Halls. Yes, our facilities have changed and improved during your time here. Thanks for your patience with the construction; I trust that each of these projects, as they came online, enriched your time here.

I hope you will look back at your time at Union with fondness. Union IS a very special place. I hope you carry with you memories of special moments, special friends, special faculty, special staff, and special places. I hope you will stay connected to each other and to the people you developed relationships who will remain here when you leave today.

As beautiful as this place is, the campus doesn’t make Union “Union;” people make Union “Union” and you, members of the Class of 2015, helped make Union “Union” for the past four years. I was reminded of this a week ago Friday when I attended the Senior Art exhibit in the Burns Atrium. Your remarkable talent was on display to be sure. But I was reminded of how you animate our very sense of institutional identity and mission by the ways in which your projects reached across disciplines – to connect art and science. My point being that the “remarkable talent” we see here looks quite different than remarkable talent you’d find elsewhere. It’s not an accident that your pieces asked the viewer to bridge art and science, art and nature; this is, after all, central to our institutional niche within higher education and you gave life to that niche through your work. I was reminded of this again at the Steinmetz Symposium where I watched you link ideas and faculty mentors from seemingly disparate fields; ideas that never would have been linked and faculty who never would have worked together at most other institutions. Where else would an engineering student bring together the resources of the costume shop and aerogel lab to design a new jacket for firefighters? As the banners that hung on campus when you arrived here proclaimed: U are Union. You made Union “Union.”

With growing national concerns about sexual assault on college campuses, you threw yourselves into President Obama’s “It’s on Us” campaign, engaged in consent education, sought bystander intervention training, discussed the issue with New York’s Lt. Governor and a U.S. Senator, and in other ways advocated for the right of all students to have a safe college experience. You spoke out against forms of injustice and promoted better understanding through the Interfaith Youth Corps, “weddings” in Jackson’s Gardens, and Hajabi for a Day. You reached out to the surrounding community with more than 15,000 hours of volunteer service. You tutored and allowed young people to dream of a brighter future.

Through initiatives like the Empty Bowls project and Campus Kitchens, you fed those who were hungry. You volunteered in communities devastated by natural disasters. As members of the Community Media Action Lab, you created public service videos for agencies that couldn’t otherwise have made them, giving their services greater visibility. Yes, you made Union “Union.”

You breathed integrity into Union by developing and implementing a College Honor Code. You set new standards for post-Union honors, winning Fulbrights, Watsons, and other prestigious prizes, making the world of higher education take notice. You will go to the far corners of the globe, working with NGOs as Minerva Fellows – transforming the lives of many and transforming yourselves in the process. Your class boasts the first four Union students to major in Chinese. And, your class boasts the first Innovation Fellow. Yes, you made Union “Union.”

And the list of accomplishments goes on. But, now it is up to you, members of the “great” class of 2015, to take the best of Union into the world, improving your workplaces and your communities the way you improved this campus. Come back to report, come back to share, come back to inspire the generations that follow you so that they too make Union, “Union.”

Let me close today’s Commencement ceremony and send you on your way, by paraphrasing the charge that Union’s first President, John Blair Smith, gave to Union students over 200 years ago: “as you leave this place, do so ready for a useful life.” No matter what you choose to do in the years ahead, remember that your academic lineage is a great one and your lineage beckons you to make a difference.

All of us at Union look forward to watching what you do and to welcoming you home to this special place many times in the years ahead. I wish you the best, members of the Class of 2015, you sisters and brothers under the laws of Minerva, you daughters and sons of Union College.